Matters of the spirit: Can five-star hotel bars bounce back?

Once, bars at five-star hotels were at the top of the game. Then—with a few laudable exceptions—standalone bars took over. Can five-star hotel bars reclaim their place in the sun?

The movie Casablanca is based on a play called Everybody comes to Rick’s, with Humphrey Bogart playing Rick, the owner of the eponymous bar. The movie was also the inspiration behind Rick’s, the bar at Delhi’s Taj Mahal Hotel, that 20 years ago, helped usher a new drinking and cocktail culture to the city. Ironic, as Rick’s is no longer the go-to haunt for Delhi’s drinkerati, nor indeed are any of its current brethren at the NCR’s 30+ luxury hotels, apart from the odd outlier. It’s not just in Delhi, however, that we see this malaise when it comes to bars in five-star/luxury hotels, but across India, with again perhaps the odd outlier like Mumbai’s Aer or Bengaluru’s Copitas. Can you name, for example, one top hotel bar in Goa, India’s top tourist destination with five-star hotels and resorts straddling its length and breadth? Hotel bars in India, although they’re alive and kicking, are no longer the prime draw for the Indian drink’s enthusiast or indeed someone who just wants a great nightlife experience. 

Someplace else is a british-style pub at the park kolkata which has managed to retain its buzz
Someplace Else is a British-style pub at The Park Kolkata which has managed to retain its buzz

It wasn’t always this way though. Delhi’s top night spots all belonged at luxury hotels ranging from MKOP (Taj Palace) and Ghungroo (ITC Maurya), where you went to let your hair down, The Jazz Bar (ITC Maurya) for a slice of Bourbon Street and Rick’s (Taj Mahal) for cocktails, with the latter in particular setting new standards when it came to cocktail menus. That lustre has since faded though with attempts like the ITC’s Dublin or the Oberoi’s Opium Den not being able to catch fire. Priya Paul too at the Park Group was responsible for setting up some of India’s best-loved hotel bars, from Aqua in Bengaluru to Agni in Delhi to still one of my favourite bars, Someplace Else in Kolkata. These bars succeeded, quite because like the hotels themselves, they were warm and welcoming, helping to easily bridge the nervousness that a punter may face when they enter what for many is a forbidding environ. These bars, however, and most Indian hotel chains, however still seem stuck in a time warp, unable to find perhaps the passion and direction that they need to reinvent themselves for the new Indian consumer, who has a yen for craftsmanship in their drinks coupled with a casual and friendly vibe. 

Aer at the Four Seasons in Mumbai has been one of the few standouts over the years, also being the first bar from India to break into Asia’s Top 50. Like Cirrus 9 at Delhi’s Oberoi, it too has taken advantage of its stunning rooftop location to become a destination in itself. 

The bamboo bar at the mandarin oriental bangkok is one of the world's greatest hotel bars
The Bamboo Bar at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok is one of the world’s greatest hotel bars

Some of the finest nights out I have had globally, however, have been at luxury hotel bars, with some great memories, ranging from the Bamboo Bar at the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok, where a chanteuse belted out jazz standards as I sipped on cocktails inspired by the regions of Thailand, to the legendary Martini trolley at the Bar at London’s Connaught to Manhattan at the Singapore’s Regent Hotel, featuring the world’s first in-hotel rickhouse (storing more than a hundred barrels in which cocktails lie maturing). Manhattan, in fact, has reached such a pinnacle in the world’s cocktail circuit that guests have been known to check themselves into the hotel, just to get space at the bar. Currently also I believe their weekly cocktail brunch has a five-month waiting period. And although in the rest of Asia, independent bars have had made enormous strides over the past few years, with Hong Kong’s COA claiming the top spot in this year’s Asia’s Top 50 Best Bars, several hotel bars have also held the tide with the aforementioned Four Season’s group in particular having three bars across Asia’s Top 50 (Charles H in Korea, Bar Trigona in Kuala Lumpur and Manhattan in Singapore). 

Copitas, the destination bar at the four seasons hotel bengaluru
Copitas, the destination bar at the Four Seasons Hotel Bengaluru

In India too it’s the Four Seasons that appears to have a strong belief in the bar, both with the aforementioned Aer as well as Copitas in Bengaluru, that interestingly enough has got leading independent bars from across India, such as Goa’s Tesouro by Firefly and Delhi’s PCO to come and take over their bar over a weekend. 

Other hotels have given up the chase, preferring either to lease out their premises like the Delhi’s Shangri La has to Zorawar Kalra’s Bo Tai Switch. Sad especially for the Shangri La, that had opened up Novele, a high-concept cocktail bar, with shades of London’s Nightjar about it. The leading lights of that bar have used their training well to move on to Lair in Delhi’s Vasant Vihar, also a high-concept cocktail bar, but now on the high street. The Taj has taken another approach, via the 7 Rivers Brewing company, a joint venture with AB InBev, with their first brewpub taking over the poolside at the Taj on MG Road in Bengaluru, attempting to give the hotel a younger hue and demographic. Perhaps this is a direction that more and more hotels will take, with possibly independent access to such bars, and not via the hotel lobby. 

Indian nightlife owes a significant debt to luxury hotels, not just for the bars that inhabited these premises, but for giving rise to some of India’s savviest and most successful bar operators, all of whom cut their teeth in these bars, whether we speak of Yangdup Lama, partner in NCR’s Sidecar (#14 in Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2021 and #1 in 30 Best Bars India 2019) and Cocktails and Dreams Speakeasy, who started his career at the Hyatt Delhi’s Polo Lounge or Vaibhav Singh of Perch (4 outlets and counting), veteran of Agni at the Park or Pankaj Balachandran of Bar Tesouro, who managed Rick’s in its heyday. A five-star bar back then was aspirational for any young bartender, and the bar would return the favour by instilling in these (largely) men, the discipline and passion that would hold them in good stead as they switched horses. 

The long bar at the raffles udaipur may signal a five-star bar renaissance
The Long Bar at the Raffles Udaipur may signal a five-star bar renaissance

A few events in the previous months have, however, helped give some cause for encouragement. The first being the opening of Raffles in Udaipur, with its storied Long Bar coming in. The Long Bar where the Singapore Sling was born, is one of the most popular destinations in Singapore, especially for tourists, and although Udaipur may seem like an unlikely city to birth a cocktail revolution in five-star hotels, change may well come rippling in from the desert. The other is the high-profile opening of Sette Mara, a Middle Eastern lounge, bar and kitchen at the St Regis in Mumbai. 

Anupam dasgupta, the leela chanakyapuri's new general manager is planning to transform the hotel's library bar
Anupam Dasgupta, the Leela Chanakyapuri’s new General Manager is planning to transform the hotel’s Library Bar

In Delhi, the Leela Palace has a new General Manager in the form of Anupam Dasgupta, a seasoned hospitality professional, with roots in food and beverage. Anupam has turned to Andy Pearson, a UK-based drinks consultant and the man behind Rick’s and later Mumbai’s House of Nomad. The Library Bar at the Leela Palace oozes luxury, and is a temple for fine spirits. Anupam now wants “to turn the Library Bar into a high-energy bar and posh bar by taking advantage of its gorgeous exterior seating”. As Yangdup Lama tells me, although a hotel bar’s revenues may pale in comparison to its rooms and banquets revenue, it’s the bar (and restaurants) that help make the hotel larger than life in the city whose nightlife it’s a part of. Indian hotels need more GM’s like Anupam, who are putting their weight behind the bar, and F&B Directors who give free rein to their bartenders. Five-star bars have natural advantages of being in some amazing surroundings and settings, whether they be a city hotel or a heritage property. That combined with the service standards and levels of hospitality that most hotel chains are known for, can make a winning combination when it comes to the bar too. 

The library bar at the leela chanakyapuri oozes luxury
The Library Bar at the Leela Chanakyapuri oozes luxury

And perhaps if I were to give one final suggestion, about a yeoman contribution that hotels could make to Indian nightlife it would be this. There are just a handful of women who work behind bars in India today. One of the leading deterrents is safety, especially when it comes to them needing to reach home late at night or early in the morning after their bar shuts. A hotel with their resource and infrastructure can easily help address this. An initiative that will help the cause of the hospitality industry as well as becoming a unique talking point for the hotel’s bar itself. Remember you read it here first!

Vikram for column

Vikram Achanta is founder and CEO of Tulleeho, a drinks training and consulting firm and a co-founder of www.tulleeho.com, a drinks website. He is also co-founder of 30 Best Bars India, India’s first bar awards and ranking platform. His Instagram handle is @rumdoodle69.

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